When explaining music theory in layman's terms, it's common to refer to "white keys" and "black keys" and take for granted that everyone knows what a piano looks like.

But keyboards didn't always look like that. Early keyboards often had black natural keys and white accidentals, or black and brown, or something else entirely. While exceptions still exist today, at some point the current look became sufficiently standard to serve as a reference point.

An ornate dual-manual vintage harpsichord where the tops of all the keys are black, but the front ends of the natural keys are exposed reddish wood. Source: Britannica.com

What's the earliest known reference to "white keys" or "black keys" where the audience was meant to assume the modern arrangement without further specification?

  • It's a fun question but perhaps more for English Language & Usage than us here? I don't know, let's see what the community thinks...
    – AakashM
    Commented Apr 18 at 6:10
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    Does this answer your question? Why are the black keys on some ancient fortepianos now white on modern pianos? Commented Apr 18 at 13:03
  • See also music.stackexchange.com/q/133592/78419 and several variations on "why two colors, anyway" Commented Apr 18 at 13:06
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    Though I find the answer to my proposed duplicate disappointing. I've started a bounty on it to narrow it down better. Commented Apr 18 at 13:13
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    @phoog Does it really want to be about terminology, though? I read it as really asking "when did this become so expected as to go without explanation"; an organological question in the clothing of a sociological question. And of course the organology is on topic here while the linguistics is better elsewhere. Commented Apr 18 at 18:54

1 Answer 1


A fairly cursory search in Google Books finds the usage attested in 1731 in The Modern Musick-Master; or the Universal Musician ... containing, i. An Introduction to Singing ... ii. Directions for playing on the Flute ... iii. The Newest Method for Learners on the German Flute ... iv. Instructions upon the Hautboy ... v. The Art of Playing on the Violin ... vi. The Harpsichord Illustrated & Improv'd. In which is included a ... Collection of Airs, and Lessons ... extracted from the Works of Mr. Handel, Bononcini, Albinoni, and other Eminent Masters. With a Brief History of Musick ... To which is added, a Musical Dictionary ... Curiously Adorn'd with Cuts ... Finely Engrav'd on above 320 Plates:

Observe in the foregoing Example of the Gammut that there are twenty-nine white Keys [which is the number contain'd in many Harpsichords except in those made here of late : to which they add both above and below, sometimes to the number of thirty-seven] There are also twenty black Keys somewhat shorter than the others which are placed between them and serve for flats ♭ ♭ or sharps ♯ ♯ to the white Keys, for Example the short Key that is between G & A serves for both G♯ and A♭, the short key between A & B serves also for A♯ and B♭ &c for the rest.

  • No. This is an explanation for the unfamiliar, not a reference to be understood out of context. Commented Apr 18 at 16:44
  • @the-baby-is-you Can you give an example of the sort of use you seek to find the earliest example of? I don't understand what you mean by "where the audience was meant to assume the modern arrangement without further specification."
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 18 at 18:31
  • @the-baby-is-you Well, this whole work is aimed at musical beginners and is explaining everything. I'll point out that already by this point, the white for natural/black for accidentals arrangement was standardized enough that Prelleur can just say "it's like this" and doesn't have to qualify it. Commented Apr 18 at 18:59
  • @phoog I said this to a complete beginner who seemed intimidated by musical terminology, which inspired the question: "I'd expect [your instrument has] a diatonic scale … that's the 'white keys,' not a pentatonic scale, which is the 'black keys,' nor a chromatic scale, which is both." Commented Apr 18 at 19:08

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